Optimism among small business owners grew significantly in December, according to the latest survey by SurePayroll.

The payroll processor’s monthly Small Business Scorecard climbed 10 percentage points to 63 percent in December, compared to 53 percent in the previous two months, and up from just 33 percent in September.

“We saw caution in 2011, but the leading indicators suggest 2012 looks positive,” said SurePayroll CEO and President Michael Alter in a statement. “The sun is on the horizon. Optimism is higher; 50 percent plan to hire and wages look to go up.”

However, over the course of the year, the picture looks bleaker. The company reported that 2011 has ended with hiring and wages down in December, leaving year-to-date trends mostly unchanged. Nationwide, hiring ended down 3.2 percent year-to-date, and paycheck levels also decreased 0.8 percent year-to-date.

There were some regional differences. In New York City, for example, hiring was up 1.7 percent year to date, but paycheck sizes fell 3.7 percent year to date. The South saw positive growth in hiring of 0.5 percent and wages of 0.4 percent over the course of the year. The rest of the country experienced declines in wages and hiring last year, aside from a slight wage increase of 0.1 percent in the Northeast.

There were month-over-month declines in nationwide hiring of -0.2 percent and wages of -0.3 percent in December. Regionally, it was a similar story, with the Midwest, Northeast and West showing modest declines across the board, and the South remaining flat in hiring and down slightly in wages in December.
Fifty percent of the small business owners surveyed said they plan to hire in 2012, and 56 percent intend to raise wages for some or all employees. Only 2 percent indicated they would reduce wages.

SurePayroll also found that 21 percent of the small business owners it surveyed plan to seek lending to grow their businesses. Survey respondents indicated the top areas where they would invest included marketing, new technology and equipment, and upgrades to their facilities. Banks were named as the main source where respondents would seek lending.

The full SurePayroll Small Business Scorecard, including data for the top 35 metropolitan areas, is available at www.SurePayroll.com.